Weather: With apologies to Charles Dickens
Tuesday 23 December 1997
McCaskill was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. His funeral had been personally supervised by his partner Ebenezer Fysshe, who, anxious to ensure the best possible turn-out, had arranged it to take place under the optimal anticipated climatic conditions. It belted down with rain, as it turned out, but Fysshe put it down to an unpredictable surge in El Nino bringing moist air from the Atlantic, cooled to precipitation point by the winds caused by an unexpectedly severe anticyclone over Scandinavia.
That sad event of the summer had now all but faded from Ebenezer's memory as he was settling down to sleep after delivering his last forecast before Christmas. Like all good weathermen, he found Christmas a period of great tension. To snow or not to snow, that was the question.
This year, however, had been easier than most. After a cold and blustery start to the month, the snow had disappeared from all but the highest ground in the most northerly areas. The prevailing south-westerlies might bring rain, especially to the west of the country and coastal areas, but the chances of snow were negligible. Or so he had told the nation.
Thus it was with only mild trepidation that Fysshe settled down for a well-earned night's sleep. As always, he glanced at the weather map before turning off the light and saw the reassuring isobars confirming his forecast. Then, with a start, he removed his hand from the light switch and stared again. For Ebenezer had been startled to see in the isobars, without their undergoing any intermediate process of change, the face of his old colleague McCaskill.
McCaskill's face, with a dismal light about it, looking as McCaskill used to look, with ghostly spectacles propped upon ghostly nose. Fysshe viewed this phenomenon with a feeling of horror, yet as he stared, it became a weather map again. He said: "Pooh, pooh," sipped the last dregs of his cocoa and turned off the light.
Yet a strange creaking noise prevented him from sleeping. He sat bolt upright and stared at the point on the wall whence it came. An old, disused barometer was swinging, though no draught was perceptible, nor any other force that might have set it in motion. A clanking sound followed - and then, through the wall, came the apparition, taking the barometer with it.
The same face. The very same. Though Fysshe saw it, he could not believe it. Festooned in charts, thermometers, barometers and umbrellas, this was the face and form of Jacob McCaskill. And he was accompanied by two still more chilling apparitions.
"What do you want with me?" shrieked Fysshe.
"Hello," said the apparition. "Have you met my assistants? They're the forecasters of Christmas past and present."
"Why do you trouble me?" asked Fysshe plaintively.
"I wear the charts I forged in life," said the ghost. "Without the visits from my assistants, you cannot hope to shun the path I tread."
The first assistant then approached Fysshe, saying, in a deathly voice, "I am the forecaster of Christmas Past." The apparition took Ebenezer's hand. A chill moment later, Ebenezer found himself in a television studio of his youth. He covered his eyes with his hand, but the apparition said: "You must look."
Reluctantly Fysshe did as he was bid and saw a young weather forecaster, confidently delivering an endpiece to camera: "A lady just phoned ..." he began.
"No!" shrieked Ebenezer. "Not that! I was so young. This is a nightmare. Set me free!"
"Watch!" commanded the ghost. And Fysshe heard the young forecaster say "... there isn't going to be a hurricane."
Then everything went blank.
The concluding part of this tale will appear tomorrow.
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